[Column] What’s missing from the debate about supporting N. Korean nuclear power

Posted on : 2021-02-08 17:15 KST Modified on : 2021-02-08 17:15 KST
Seo Jae-jung
Seo Jae-jung

By Seo Jae-jung, professor of international relations and political science at the International Christian University in Japan

2021 is a watershed year that will decide the course of events on the Korean Peninsula for at least the next five years. Will the Korean Peninsula move toward peace and denuclearization or toward an arms race and more nuclear armament? The answer to that question will depend on what steps are taken this year, and the manner in which they’re taken.

Once that direction is chosen, political, economic and institutional inertia will take over. This could go down as the year when North Korea irrevocably becomes a nuclear power state.

The 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), which was held this past January, was notable in several respects. Particular attention was paid to the area of nuclear weapons.

In addition to developing smaller, lighter weapons and big hydrogen bombs, North Korea also declared that it had completed the development of “an even more powerful nuclear warhead.”

At the WPK Congress, the North Koreans announced the acquisition of intercontinental ballistic missiles, intermediate-range missiles, surface-launched missiles, submarine-launched missiles and “rockets with global strike capacity and improved warhead guidance.”

By simply claiming to have acquired such weapon systems, North Korea presents the South Korean and US militaries with a conundrum. They have no way of confirming whether the weapon systems actually exist or whether (assuming they do exist) they function properly — but neither can they simply ignore that claim.

The very mention of these weapons in the project report at the WPK Congress has a strategic effect. Furthermore, mentioning weapon systems that haven’t been openly tested is an implicit statement of the need to test them, and a warning that the North’s decision about whether and when to carry out those tests will depend upon future developments.

The main variable at play here is South Korea and the US’s joint military exercises, which North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has specifically identified as the main reason for the freeze in inter-Korean relations. If South Korea and the US resume those exercises, testing a new weapon is obviously one option available to the North.

It’s also obvious how such a step would affect Korean Peninsula affairs. South Korea and the US would respond with tougher sanctions, both through the UN and on their own, pushing North Korea to carry out even more weapon tests. In short, 2021 would be marked by a vicious cycle of tit for tat.

That’s why delaying the South Korea-US military exercises is the bare minimum measure necessary for peace on the Korean Peninsula, or at least for maintaining stability in Korean Peninsula affairs.

The problem is that such a delay isn’t enough by itself. In his project report at the WPK Congress, Kim mentioned “plans to initiate the creation of a nuclear power industry” as part of the North’s mid- and long-term strategy for the power sector in its five-year plan. While the details of those plans can’t be known for now, we can infer that the North will be energetically working to build a nuclear power industry over the next five years.

North Korea began construction of a 5MW test reactor at its Yongbyon complex in 1979 and activated the reactor upon its completion in 1986. In 1981, the North started building a 200MW reactor at Taechon, about 30km to the northwest of Yongbyon. In 1986, it began building another reactor at Yongbyon, this one with a capacity of 50MW.

The North had planned to complete these reactors by 1996; in the end, it never finished either one. It halted their construction as part of the Agreed Framework reached with the US in 1994. In exchange, the US agreed to provide the North with light water reactors in Sinpo, but that project ran aground during the 2nd North Korean nuclear crisis in the 2000s.

In short, North Korea has been pursuing nuclear power since at least the late 1970s, and Kim Jong-un has carried on that pursuit, with the goal of resolving the North’s chronic shortage of electricity.

In 2016, Kim urged the country to “move forward simultaneously with the construction of nuclear reactors”; in 2019, he even announced a plan to “prospectively acquire the capacity to generate nuclear power.”

But this January, Kim wasn’t talking about building any specific nuclear power station. Instead, he included the development of a “nuclear power industry” in the five-year economic development plan, which suggests that North Korea’s effort in that area will be quantitatively and qualitatively different from before.

The problem is that even if North Korea were to “innocently” develop a nuclear power industry to produce energy for civilian purposes, the by-products of those power stations could still be used to build nuclear weapons. That would also likely be a violation of UN sanctions, which prohibit the North from engaging in nuclear activities.

To be sure, the joint statement adopted by the members of the Six Party Talks on Sept. 19, 2005, acknowledged that North Korea has the right to the peaceful use of nuclear power. But if the North ramps up efforts to develop a nuclear power industry, there would be considerable international repercussions.

That’s why the recent controversy about South Korea supporting North Korean nuclear power is so counterproductive. If we care about peace on the Korean Peninsula, we shouldn’t be squabbling over whether or not the government drew up secret plans to support North Korea’s nuclear power industry. It’s time for us to be seriously thinking about how to respond to the North’s impending plan to undertake a huge nuclear reactor construction project.

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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